Agrarian Justice

Thomas Paine

[1795-96 / Part 1]

In this work, his last great pamphlet published in the winter of 1795-1796, Paine continued the discussion he began in Part II of the Rights of Man of the problem of the elimination of poverty and developed further his proposals for limiting the accumulation of property. The crux of the entire question of eliminating poverty, he points out, lay in the institution of private property, for this principle was the source of the evils of society. Landed property and private property, he argued, were made possible only by the operation of society since whatever property men accumulated beyond their own labor came from the fact that they lived in society. "... The accumulation of personal property," he wrote, "is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is, that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence." God had never opened a land office, he held, from which perpetual deeds to the earth should be issued. He spoke, he boldly declared, for "all those who hive been thrown out of their natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property." It is of some interest to note that Thomas Jefferson observed, in a letter to Rev. James Madison in February, 1787: "Whenever there are in a country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate the natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided for those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed...," [Philip S. Foner, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Selections from His Writings, pp. 56-57.]

Since the operation of society had made possible the existence of private property, it followed that society was entitled to receive the surplus that men accumulated beyond their own labor back from them. Paine proposed a plan to deal with the problem of poverty by providing for the taxation of accumulated property to permit the state to give each man and woman reaching the age of twenty-one the sum of or fifteen pounds, and every person fifty years of age or over ten pounds per year. His plan, which today would be called a system of 'social insurance, called for graduated inheritance taxes and ground rents.

Unlike many land reformers who preceded and followed him, Paine did not advocate the establishment of an agrarian society. For evidence that Paine's proposal was too moderate for some contemporary Agrarians, see Thomas Spence's pamphlet published in 1797, The Rights of Infants, with Scriptures on Paine's Agrarian Justice. -- Editor.

Author's Inscription

To the Legislature and the Executive Directory of the French Republic

The plan contained in this work is not adapted for any particular country alone: the principle on which it is based is general. But as the rights of man are a new study in this world, and one needing protection from priestly imposture, and the insolence of oppressions too long established, I have thought it right to place this little work under your safeguard.

When we reflect on the long and dense night in this which France and all Europe have remained plunged by their governments and their priests, we must feel less surprise than grief at the bewilderment caused by the first burst of light that dispels the darkness. The eye accustomed to darkness can hardly bear at first the broad daylight. It is by usage the eye learns to see, and it is the same in this passing from any situation to its opposite.

As we have not at one instant renounced all our errors, we cannot at one stroke acquire knowledge of all our rights. France has had the honor of adding to the word Liberty that of Equality; and this word signifies essentially a principle that admits of no gradation in this the things to which it applies. But equality is often misunderstood, often misapplied, and often violated.

Liberty and Property are words expressing all those of our possessions which are not of an intellectual nature. There are two kinds of property. Firstly, natural property, or that which comes to us from the Creator of the universe -- such as the earth, air, water. Secondly, artificial or acquired property -- the invention or men.

In this the latter, equality is impossible; for to distribute it equally it would be necessary that all should have contributed in this the same proportion, which can never be the case; and this being the case, every individual would hold on to his own property, as his right share. Equality of natural property is the subject of this little essay. Every individual in this the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property, or its equivalent.

The right of voting for persons charged with the execution of the laws that govern society is inherent in this the word liberty, and constitutes the equality of personal rights. But even if that right (of voting) were inherent in this property, which I deny, the right of suffrage would still belong to all equally, because, as I have said, all individuals have legitimate birthrights in a certain species of property.

I have always considered the present Constitution of the French Republic the best organized system the human mind has yet produced. But I hope my former colleagues will not be offended if I warn them of an error which has slipped into its principle. Equality of the right of suffrage is not maintained. This right is in it connected with a condition on which it ought not to depend; that is, with a proportion of a certain tax called "direct."

The dignity of suffrage is thus lowered; and, in placing it in the scale with an inferior thing, the enthusiasm that right is capable of inspiring is diminished. It is impossible to find any equivalent counterpoise for the right of suffrage, because it is alone worthy to be its own basis, and cannot thrive as a graft, or an appendage.

Since the Constitution was established we have seen two conspiracies stranded -- that of Babeuf," and that of some obscure personages who decorate themselves with the despicable name of "royalists." The defect in principle of the Constitution was the origin of Babeuf's conspiracy.

He availed himself of the resentment caused by this flaw, and instead of seeking a remedy by legitimate and constitutional means, or proposing some measure useful to society, the conspirators did their best to renew disorder and confusion, and constituted themselves personally into a Directory, which is formally destructive of election and representation. They were, in fine, extravagant enough to suppose that society, occupied with its domestic affairs, would blindly yield to them a dictatorship usurped by violence.

The conspiracy of Babeuf was followed in a few months by that of the royalists, who foolishly flattered themselves with the notion of doing great things by feeble or foul means. They counted on all the discontented, from whatever cause, and tried to rouse, in their turn, the class of people who had been following the others. But these new chiefs acted as if they thought society had nothing more at heart than to maintain courtiers, pensioners, and all their train, under the contemptible title of royalty. My little essay will disabuse them, by showing that society is aiming at a very different end -- maintaining itself.

We all know or should know, that the time during which a revolution is proceeding is not the time when its resulting advantages can he enjoyed. But had Babeuf and his accomplices taken into consideration the condition of France under this Constitution, and compared it with what it was under the tragical revolutionary government, and during the execrable Reign of Terror, the rapidity of the alteration must have appeared to them very striking and astonishing. Famine has been replaced by abundance, and by the well-founded hope of a near and increasing prosperity.

As for the defect in the Constitution. I am fully convinced that it will be rectified constitutionally, and that this step is indispensable; for so long as it continues it will inspire the hopes and furnish the means of conspirators; and for the rest, it is regrettable that a Constitution so wisely organized should err so much in its principle. This fault exposes it to other dangers which will make themselves felt.

Intriguing candidates will go about among those who have not the means to pay the direct tax and pay it for them, on condition of receiving their votes. Let us maintain inviolably equality in the sacred right of suffrage: public security can never have a basis more solid. Salut et Fraternite. Your former colleague, Thomas Paine.

Author's English Preface

The following little piece was written in the winter of 1795 and 1796; and, as I had not determined whether to publish it during the present war, or to wait till the commencement of peace, it has lain by me, without alteration or addition, from the time it was written.

What has determined me to publish it now is a sermon preached by Watson. Bishop or Llandaff. Some of my readers will recollect, that this Bishop wrote a book entitled "An Apology for the Bible," in answer to my second part of "The Age of Reason," I procured a copy of his book, and he may depend upon hearing from me on that subject.

At the end of the Bishop's book is a list of the works he has written. Among which is the sermon alluded to; it is entitled: "The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both Rich and Poor; with an Appendix containing Reflections on the Present State of England and France."

The error contained in this sermon determined me to publish my "Agrarian Justice." It is wrong to say God made rich and poor; He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance. ...

Instead of preaching to encourage one part of mankind in insolence ... it would be better that priests employed their time to render the general condition of man less miserable than it is. Practical religion consists in doing good: and the only way of serving God is that of endeavoring to make His creation happy. All preaching that has not this for its object is nonsense and hypocrisy.